It's Always Almost Here

There's a nice moment in teaching, somewhere around May when the exams are nearly graded and the summer is before you where you start to think about the possibilities of next fall's courses. 

It's a lovely time, but a dangerous one, at least it is for me. We have strict rules at our University, spurred by the State of New York, that students need to have the earliest possible access to the book list for your course in order to save money. A good idea, I suppose, although none of my students take advantage of it. They are always buying the books the first week regardless. 

The danger here is that I start to dream. I fantasize about the cool things I can do since I have months to plan it out. The perception of endless time rolling out before me is seductive. I plan these amazing courses that require me to re-plan my course pretty much every term. And I am not sure I do a good job of it. It's always almost here, and then suddenly, it's here, and I have not done all the copious note taking and lecture planning I assigned myself the first week of June.

I had to change my perspective pretty early on when engaging this form of teaching, constantly being refreshed. I get inspired by new things I've read or been exposed to, and I assign a lot of reading that I have not done multiple times. I feel pretty ill equipped and a bit panicked at the idea of teaching such material.

This anxiety and fear is based on a model of teaching that is, without question, impoverished. Who can say they are the one who knows? From what posture can you be certain that you have a grasp of it? Perhaps the democratization of who can know is the approach to take here. That is, the students and the teacher are co-investigators, reading and questioning in order to generate principles for the recognition of knowledge, rather than the reiteration of the already-known. 

Dredging up the signs and symbols that master the order of knowing is uncomfortable. Knowing the right answer and questioning your students until one accidentally says it is comfortable. It's familiar at least, and nobody wants to be the leader into an unfamiliar scene. We do have people like this though- they are called Principle Investigators, and they run labs over in the hard-science area of your university. No, I don't spend any time over there either. And I rarely see them. 

A principle investigator does not know what she will find, but has a plan on how to look. And she teaches that plan and those procedures to the students working the problem with her in the lab. Anyone can generate knowledge; actually, they are all expected to do so. Conducting the daily work of the lab is the generation and creation of knowledge. Sometimes, that knowledge upsets the principle of organization, sometimes it reveals it, sometimes it does neither, and the problem must be addressed again, from a different perspective. 

Why not approach many courses this way? I am doing so this term, with semi-unfamiliar texts and strange assignments where I am not sure what will be offered. But I hope that between us we can generate something valuable.

The desire for freshness in college teaching is a good one - it's expected by the students, it keeps the professor on her toes, and the administration seems to think such moves help the university weather the current retention storm. Is re-designing a course "engagement" in the way that all these groups think of it? There certainly can be too much reliance on the new, or the trendy. But asking questions, and having students ask and address questions where you as the teacher don't know how to respond - that never goes out of style.